BILOXI -- Gulf Coast Veterans Health Care System Director Anthony Dawson received a tongue-lashing from unhappy military veterans during a town hall meeting Tuesday afternoon.
"Why doesn't the VA care about its people?" said Biloxian Donald Schielder, a disabled Vietnam War veteran. "That's the way I feel. Y'all don't care about us. I fought for my country to keep my country free. I expect a little more respect."
He complained about the difficulty in making appointments with his doctor.
He said the VA scheduled his appointments for him until about a year ago, when he was told he had to start scheduling his own appointments.
"I haven't seen a doctor in over a year-and-a-half," he said.
Like Schielder, veteran John Robinson said the Gulf Coast VA medical staff are disrespectful and don't seem to care about his problems.
He said his doctor prescribed him a cholesterol medication that resulted in a burning sensation in his throat.
He complained about it several times but nothing was done until he said he was going to stop taking the pills. That's when his doctor told him to take the issue up with his pharmacist, he said.
When Robinson told his pharmacist about it, the pharmacist was shocked: "He said, 'What? After all this time, it's been burning your throat and you told your doctor?'"
Robinson went to a private doctor who diagnosed him with cancer of the esophagus, he said.
"Now, I still have to come here and see the same doctor," he said. "I'm being screamed at -- like this man just said a minute ago, disrespected."
Veteran Ginni McCann said she notices how fellow veterans can easily slip through the cracks if they don't know how to work the system.
She said she is fortunate to be very familiar with how the VA medical system works, but for others, she said, tasks like scheduling appointments can be very problematic.
She recommended the Gulf Coast VA implement a three-day patient-orientation program to teach the bureaucratic complexities. Such a program is in use at VA systems in Denver, she said.
"For those individuals who have not utilized the system as much," Dawson said, "they'll come in, and yes, there are some confusing things that are going on at this particular time.
"We have some orientation programs that are going on as we speak, but to get the specifics on what (other VA systems) are doing versus what we're doing is what we have to look at."
Others directed their grievances at Dawson, saying they can never get in touch with him or meet with him in his office.
In an interview later, McCann also criticized Dawson for being inaccessible to the average veteran. She said his priorities seem to be on things such as promoting recycling on the VA campus.
In response, Dawson gave out his email address and office number.
"There are many, many ways in which a veteran can indeed touch bases with me," Dawson said in a later interview, listing a variety of communication channels. "But the one thing about it is once they understand the system, they will know how to work those ways better."
Following the meeting, Dawson said the most important thing he took away from the veterans' concerns was the issue of respect.
"The veterans don't feel they're getting the respect that they deserve when they come into the organization," he said. "That's a key thing, and that's the one thing I have to go back and do some more things about."